Few teams in college football return a trio quite like the one that will light up the scoreboard in Death Valley this fall.
Clemson’s triumvirate of quarterback Tajh Boyd, tailback Andre Ellington, and receiver Sammy Watkins were extraordinarily prolific last season. Now, as each is a year more experienced, they should produce even more.
Boyd, who will be a junior, led the ACC in passing with 3,828 yards, threw 33 touchdowns passes against 12 interceptions and added five rushing touchdowns.
Ellington was fifth in the ACC rushing in 2011 with 1,178 yards and 11 scores while also catching 22 passes.
As a true freshman, Watkins was third in the ACC in receiving with 82 receptions for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also carried the ball in a variety of ways 31 times for 229 yards.
With Boyd and Watkins getting so much attention, Ellington may not be on the early-season radar for the Heisman Trophy, but he’d make the list if he played for any other high-profile teams. Watkins goes without saying, though nobody yet knows the outcome of a recent arrest on drug-related charges that could impact his availability in the first week or two of the season.
The offense begins with Boyd. He’s the quarterback, the leader, the guy Dabo Swinney envisioned building around when he recruited Boyd from the Tidewater area in Virginia.
Boyd was sensational through the first eight games last season, all victories for the Tigers, which had them ascend to the No. 5 spot in the BCS standings. But he struggled taking care of the ball to close out the season, which has been a point of emphasis this spring.
“He did do a lot of good things last year, and you never want to minimize that,” Swinney said. “But we’re trying to be great, and he (Boyd) wants to be great, and it’s a tough position to play.
“But there’s a lot of room for improvement for Tajh Boyd. Number one is ball security. He led our team in turnovers, and he did such a great job through those first eight games, and then all of a sudden he started freelancing and playing outside the system and forcing things and just not doing as good a job of managing the game.”
Boyd completed 63 percent of his passes with 24 touchdowns and three interceptions over the first eight games, but was at just 55.2 percent with nine
scoring tosses and nine interceptions over the final six.
Boyd still helped lead Clemson to an ACC championship and its first Orange Bowl appearance (losing 70-33 to West Virginia) since it won the national championship in 1981.
“Part of that is just experience and having played and been there now and knowledge of the system in year two and staying within the system,” Swinney said. “When we had some issues with Tajh last year, a lot of it was where he would get outside what we asked him to do. So just being a little bit more disciplined as a quarterback is going to be huge.”
Watkins burst onto the scene to elevate the explosiveness the Clemson staff expected. In addition to the aforementioned numbers, Watkins also returned 26 kickoffs for an average of 26.3 yards, including one that went 89 yards for a score. Needless to say, the ultra-fast rookie was a fan favorite by the time he lit up Florida State’s defense (eight catches, 141 yards, two TDs) in a 35-30 victory on Sept. 24 that rocketed the Tigers in the national consciousness.
Ellington is reliable and should continue to progress. He was the returning skill guy last season and he shows no signs of slowing down. Growth by Boyd and Watkins will only help Ellington improve his capability.
If so, and Clemson’s defense improves enough that the Tigers are among the top-10 entering November, either Boyd, Ellington or Watkins could be in the hunt for the sport’s most prestigious honor. Boyd and Watkins are the best bets, but Ellington’s presence can’t be discounted.